Toward the Light | Yankee Christmas Archives (December 1984)

A nostalgic remembrance of New England Christmases past from the Yankee archives by editor-in-chief Judson D. Hale.

By Judson D. Hale

Dec 05 2017


A tree aglow on Christmas.

Photo Credit : Jennifer Freeman
A tree aglow on Christmas.
A tree aglow on Christmas.
Photo Credit : Jennifer Freeman

Tonight the sun will set at 5:23 p.m. From now until December 25, there will be less light each day. And for many people past the halfway point in years, myself included, the growing darkness is a fitting medium for the holiday season. All around us is the frenetic bustle of shopping, entertaining and being entertained, drinking eggnog and what-not, but inside we’re living in memories, memories that seem to grow more vivid as the gap separating our inner mood from our outside activities becomes wider. Ironically, Christmas memories are invariably happy and joyous, while our reflection upon them is an exercise combining pleasure with sadness — a reflective sadness because they are memories, and we long to make them real again.

For instance, how I’d love to run once more a few feet behind the four-runner, two-horse-drawn sleigh that carried more than a dozen of us around Vanceboro, Maine, singing carols on Christmas Eve. I can feel the hard-packed snow beneath my “gummy shoes.” I can see the small flat place at the end of the metal runner on which I would wildly leap in order to climb back into the sleigh to catch my breath. It often took two or three tries. I can smell the hay and moldy old buffalo robes we used for staying warm while aboard. In my mind’s eye these many years later, I can watch Santa’s sleigh and reindeer flying above us through the thousands of stars overhead. It was always during the caroling tour about town that my mother told us we’d see him “in our imagination.” And we always did.

I can picture myself rummaging through drawers after supper on Christmas Eve in search of the largest of my woolen socks to hang on the fireplace mantel. (Often I’d push aside several porcupine noses amongst the underwear. I usually stored several in there temporarily until I’d get to town and turn them in to the game warden for 50¢ each.)

I can hear my Dad on the roof simulating Santa’s laugh; then he slips, swears, and my sister and I no longer believe.

How well I remember the darkness of our bitter-cold living room at around four o’clock on Christmas morning. I can see just enough to work my way carefully around the furniture to the fireplace mantel where, just a few hours before, I’d nailed my limp old woolen sock. Now, miracle of miracles, it’s dramatically transformed into a long, deliciously fat, contorted bundle of exquisite mystery. I can feel its weight (even today) as I unhook it and slowly, carefully, begin the trip back to my bedroom. Is that a bicycle under the tree? Too dark to really tell. Anyway, stocking first. The tree will wait for the entire family to rise, eat breakfast interminably, and then open one present at a time so “everyone can enjoy them all.” (I begin to fidget with that particular recollection.)

However, the stocking-opening is a private ecstasy at my own pace, in my own bed, with just me. I can clearly remember the frigid temperature of the metal flashlight I shine beneath my cozy, warm covers. As usual, Sunny is suddenly there, too. I can feel her coarse fur between my fingers as I shove her out onto the floor several times — until I give up. Stupid dog.

To be sure, the memories rush at us this time of year. So much else is happening — the trees have become bare and sometimes caked with ice; the decorative lights, some pretty, some atrocious, are everywhere; Perry Como has his Christmas television “special” and so does everybody else; for once there’s more personal mail each day than junk mail; the kids are coming home with their kids — and yet the memories envelop and control us.

On the day after Christmas, the fortunate children of the world will savor and digest their day-old memories, unconsciously storing them away, like the treasures they are, for the far-distant future. On the day after Christmas, the sun sets a full minute later. Time once again to look toward the light.